Few Christmas movies are considered true classics. It’s not enough to just be good or full of spirit. You must tell a truly special holiday tale to join the ranks of It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street. But no movie has seemingly earned a place in that sacred group since 2003’s Elf. Have none been deserving of entering those hallowed holiday halls in nearly 20 years? Or have worthy claimants simply not been recognized for their greatness yet?
To answer that we looked at 21st century film’s with the best case for inclusion in the “Christmas Movie Pantheon” to decide if they deserve to stand with alongside the holiday’s best.
The Christmas Chronicles
Kurt Russell’s stylish Santa is one of the very best St. Nick’s in Christmas movie history. His performance alone is enough to earn the first and better film (of two) in this franchise consideration. But that’s not all The Christmas Chronicles has going for it. It also tells a magical family story that delivers an ending that will remind viewers why they love watching these kinds of movies.
Verdict: Though fun and sentimental, The Christmas Chronicles has lots of pacing issues. It’s plot is also too obvious and thin even for a Christmas movie. A fun watch for sure, but only good at best. But while it’s far from a classic, it did get Kurt Russell into the Cinematic Santa Pantheon.
Noelle is absolutely delightful from start to finish. Starring Anna Kendrick as Santa’s daughter, Noelle sets out to find her missing brother (played by Bill Hader) who’s terrified to assume the role of Kris Kringle. That leads her to look for him in Arizona, and Christmas in the sun gives the film a fresh perspective compared to the typical snowbound holiday fare. It’s also a feel-good story full of laughs, great performances, heart, and Christmas spirit.
Verdict: Noelle has major Elf vibes, and that’s both good and bad. Anything that reminds us of Will Ferrell’s holiday classic is obviously doing something right. But Noelle is not nearly as good as Elf. So while it might still be worthy of a yearly rewatch every December, it doesn’t deserve a spot anywhere near the top Christmas movie echelon.
The Man Who Invented Christmas
There are roughly 5 billion adaptations of Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol (and always more on the way). But The Man Who Invented Christmas makes its mark by telling the story about writing the story. Starring Dan Stevens as the author who crafted the most famous Christmas tale ever, it’s a clever and touching film that explores Ebenezer Scrooge in a novel(la) way, which makes for a fun and rewarding film.
Verdict: The Man Who Invented Christmas is definitely worth watching around Christmastime, just not every Christmas. It’s a nice film, but not anywhere as good as the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol. There’s a reason Dickens made Scrooge the main character of his ghost story rather than himself.
Speaking of A Christmas Carol adaptations, one of the newest, Spirited, features Elf‘s Will Ferrell making a second attempt at gifting us another Christmas movie classic. He plays the Ghost of Christmas Present who tries to show Ryan Reynold’s seemingly irredeemable highly paid consultant to the true spirit of the season. The musical features Broadway-esque song and dance numbers, genuine pathos, and something that feels both familiar and fresh.
Verdict: Spirited is really good, but it’s far from perfect. It feels too much like it would rather be a stage show than a film. It also has some strange pacing issues and only a few songs stand out. But while it doesn’t make the cut yet, with repeated viewings its flaws might very well give way to everything it does so well. This one is officially a “maybe.” Like so many other top-tier Christmas movies, it needs time to earn a place among the season’s most special entries.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
The Guardians of the Galaxy have always been about found family, sacrifice, and putting others above yourself. So no surprise the MCU’s gang of intergalactic heroes gifted fans a truly wonderful Christmas present. James Gunn’s Holiday Special is full of comedy, heart, and a killer soundtrack. It’s everything you you would hope for, but better. It just came out and we’ve already watched it multiple times.
Verdict: We have no choice but to declare a…split verdict! :gasps from the galley: If you’re an MCU fan this is an instant classic worthy of a place among the best Christmas movies ever. It really is that perfect. But if you have no idea who the Guardians are then much of what makes this holiday special so good will be lost on you. A true, unquestioned Pantheon Christmas movie comes with no such caveat.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Emotional family reunions? Magical toys? Redemption? And moving lessons about the power of Christmas and the perils of greed? Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has all those seasonal staples and more, in a musical that delivers some great songs and fantastic performances from a terrific cast. If a Christmas movie can feel like a two-hour hug it’s this one.
Verdict: So, so, so close. Jingle Jangle is really wonderful, but you’ll forget some of the songs the second they end. A few scenes and sequences also feel out of place and slow down the film’s momentum. But it’s only been around since 2020, and with repeated viewings over the years some of the more forgettable songs will likely lodge themselves in our brains. And when they do the film’s other shortcomings will gave way to everything it does so well. We’re not sure if a jury can deliver an “eventually” verdict, but we can and just did.
The first animated film to warrant consideration is also one of the 21st century’s best holiday movies. Arthur Christmas takes place entirely on the big night. It follows Santa’s youngest son, the kindhearted but clumsy Arthur, as he sets out with his long-retired grandfather Santa to deliver the one toy that didn’t reach its destination. Featuring an amazing cast and a story that is simple yet filled with innovation, the movie works in almost every way. And no matter your age, Arthur Christmas has something that will speak to you personally.
Verdict: With a runtime of just 1:37, Arthur Christmas certainly isn’t long. And yet it still feels stretched out in the middle, as the premise gets pulled to its limits. But that doesn’t matter, because every character is as wonderful as this heartfelt story that will absolutely gift you with the best kind of Christmas tears. This is the first film we’re ready to declare worthy of entering the Christmas Movie Pantheon. But it’s not the last.
The second animated film on this list is everything you’d want in a Christmas movie. Klaus is a Santa Claus origin story that is so much more. It’s sweet, smart, funny, emotional, original and goes in directions you won’t see coming even when you think you know exactly where it’s heading. Full of gorgeous animation and rich characters, it will have you crying throughout the film. Sometimes those will be tears of laughter, other times tears of sadness, and finally tears of joy.
Verdict: We don’t even need to enter the jury room for this one. Klaus is the best Christmas movie since Elf, and it deserves to forever claim a spot among the season’s very best films.